Pretty eclectic selection this month I guess, but 2012 has finally kicked off properly and there’s a bunch of great stuff out there right now that you wouldn’t wanna miss, promise.
Let’s start with Land Lines, the new LP by Starving Weirdos that virtually came out of nothing a couple of weeks ago. Starving is the Californian experimental duo consisting of Brian Pyle and Merrick McKinlay, and while the former has been better known for his solo musings as Ensemble Economique as of late, this project is actually long-standing and could still be considered his main venture. Land Lines is an excellent affair, adopting quite a few of EE’s dark vibes while standing solidly on its own, the 60-minute album comprises seven expansive avant-psych reveries that lay out dense and sprawling soundscapes, widescreen drone and noise incursions, to a great extent relying on sheer, sweeping improvisations. The LP is already available via Amish Records.
Stream: Starving Weirdos – A Change In The Lexicon
I’m pretty sure that NYC via LA artist Zak Mering is one of the busiest figures in the contemporary North American underground – whenever something exciting happened there in the last two years, Mering most likely was not very far away, most prominently with Greatest Hits, the deranged disco project he pursues together with Tyler Thacker, but also under a bunch of other recording guises. His main venture however, if there is one, would be Raw Thrills, where Mering acts out his love for shamelessly weird yet honest outré lo-fi pop. If this description faintly reminds you of artists such as Ariel Pink, John Maus, or Sam Mehran, then you’re actually not on the wrong track at all, as Mering is an offspring of the same LA scene that bred this very distinct style that we all associate with these names nowadays. Sometime this spring, Tokyo-based label Sixteen Tambourines is gonna drop the next Raw Thrills LP Sick Steez, a name that, as the blog Relentless Noisemaker pointed out, probably not accidentally resembles “Sixties”: the golden era of psych pop is dripping out of every song on the new record, which consists of quite a few cover versions of lost songs from that decade. But it’s crucial to point out that Mering manages to pay tribute while turning the tracks into his own by means of his very own, unique recording style. The best songs on Sick Steez are those that have been accomplished with a little help from friends and family, like “Run Spot Run”, recorded together with his sister Natalie aka Weyes Blood, or “Daddy Don’t Go”, that features the above mentioned hero Ariel Pink, who’s responsible for the track’s instrumentation. On “Easy For Me (It’s Not That)”, below, Ryan Howe of Punks On Mars, just another incredible lo-fi pop outfit, has played guitar.
Video: Raw Thrills – Easy For Me (It’s Not That)
More outsider pop but of a completely different kind is offered this month by stellar Vermont imprint NNA Tapes. Ryan Power’s music is, well, beautiful and totally awesome, yet beautiful in a way that might be too much for many readers of columns like this one. In fact, it seems like some decent publications somehow believe that I Don’t Want to Die, the crooner’s forthcoming record, amounts to something like an insider joke for disturbed hipsters. Granted, the sheer bliss of the title track might not be accessible for everyone, and if someone started screaming “kitsch!”, I probably wouldn’t even blame him – but seriously, listen! If this is not the most baffling and entrancing piece of avant-pop you’ve come across in ages, I don’t know what could be. Just admit it, there’s a romanticist deep inside you, too. I Don’t Want to Die is out April 3.
Stream: Ryan Power – I Don’t Want to Die
So anyway, just in case nice melodies or for that matter tonality are really not your thing, NNA Tapes have scheduled something for you as well, a split LP between sonic experimentalists Eli Keszler and Keith Fullerton Whitman, also out April 3. It’s not overly obvious upon first, superficial listen, at least if you’re unfamiliar with the artists, that Keszler and Fullerton Whitman take vastly different approaches, the former relying entirely on live acoustics, while Fullerton Whitman (who’s also just released the stellar LP Generators via Editions Mego) works exclusively with an electronic setup. Considering this, it’s actually surprising how close the two get sonically, and it definitely makes a lot of sense to think of the piece as a creative dialogue between the two outstanding artists – musically, the sets may seem utterly harsh at first, but both quickly develop a mesmerizing character that is rather irresistible. Split LPs rarely add up so perfectly.
Stream: Eli Keszler – Drums, Crotales, Installed Motors, Micro-Controller Metal Plates
Stream: Keith Fullerton Whitman – Occlusion (Excerpt)
Staying in the realm of demanding yet intriguing sonic experimentations, still newish London imprint Public Information continues to surpass all expectations with its fourth release, the five-track 12” EP Dromilly Vale by Bristol’s Nick Edwards aka Ekoplekz. Though I’ve been digging everything Edwards has dropped so far, in particular last year’s Memowrekz on Mordant Music and the thrilling Westerleigh Works EP from last December, in my view Dromilly Vale is his most compelling and in a way also most accessible effort to date, a riveting trip from a BBC Radiophonic Workshop reverence (“Dick Mills Blues”) via a delicious nod to dub on the title track to a final implosion of white noise meanderings on the EP closer. Out February 27, the vinyl is strictly limited to 300 copies, with no repress whatsoever. Be quick, this stuff is highly recommended.
Stream: Ekoplekz – Dromilly Vale EP Preview:
Also one you shouldn’t miss is Canto Arquipelago by Antwerp-based Lieven Martens aka Dolphins Into The Future, who has dedicated this latest full-length of his to the Azores, and really, who wouldn’t wanna be there right now. The hypnagogic mainstay has produced a lush collage of slowly meandering ambient sounds made up of minimalist percussion, flutes, xylophones and other percussion, generally more traditional instruments. Still, the main feature of all tracks are the delicately inwrought field recordings of sea water, pouring tropical rain, and singing birds, or, later on and in particular on the eleven-minute album closer “Levante”, crickets, a crowing rooster, and distantly mooing cows, all recorded by Martens while spending several weeks on the remote volcanic archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic. A very unique and special work. Canto Arquipelago is out March 6 via the great Underwater Peoples.
Stream: Dolphins Into The Future – Noite
Finally, a very exciting release to top it all off, another legend of the lo-fi or if you wish hypnagogic underground in the US has just dropped his latest effort. Spencer Clark, formerly known as one half of noise duo The Skaters with James Ferraro and this time operating under his Charles Berlitz guise, recorded Inner Tube together with Mark McGuire, guitarist of experimental/drone outfit Emeralds. The album is a 45-minute exercise in finest deranged surf pop extravaganza, according to Clark “devoted to sick beaches like Mermaids and Swami’s or Sunset Cliffs and Bondi”, with himself providing the instrumental basis for McGuire’s intricate, delicious guitar play that is here more outreaching and effortlessly skilful than ever. Supreme headphone summer vibes that even let Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in grey February feel like a splendid sandy shore. One of the finest LPs of 2012, no doubt.
Stream: Mark McGuire & Charles Berlitz – MR
2012 is still fairly young and strictly speaking, musically there hasn’t that much going on till now, the year is kicking off rather slowly this time. However, the coming months will bring a lot of exciting stuff and there already is enough mouth-watering material to sift through.
First of all, allow me to make a probably bold prediction. After Olde English Spelling Bee shaping 2010 and Hippos In Tanks and Tri Angle conjointly dominating the last twelve months, 2012 is going to be the year of RVNG Intl. At least it could become their year (in that tiny niche of the universe we’re examining here, that is), as it seems the Brooklyn label has made quite a few right A&R decisions as of late. First, there’s Oberlin alumni Zach Steinman and Sam Haar aka Blondes. The duo’s long-awaited proper debut is set to arrive with a breathtaking compilation of remixes, and the two discs combined will surely be considered one of this year’s most essential efforts of experimental dance music. The self-titled LP will hit the stores on February 6th.
But as I’m not exactly entitled to talk about beat-centred music here, let’s quickly move on to two other forthcoming RVNG records that really excite me. First in line is the second proper album by Julia Holter, Ekstasis, the follow-up to one of 2011’s most stunning LPs, Tragedy, the album for Leaving Records that simply can’t be appreciated enough for its breathtaking complexity and flawless beauty. Now the classically trained (virtually no one ever fails to mention that, so why should I?) artist has already finished the successor, and you only need to listen a couple of seconds into album opener “Marienbad” to be reassured that more likely than not it’s gonna be another masterpiece. The song itself is named after the 1961 French movie L’Année dernière à Marienbad, which is famous for its oneiric and enigmatic structure, more than a mere hint that we’re again dealing with heavily referential and deep topoi here – after all, Tragedy was a take on Euripedes’s epic Hippolytus from 428 BC. Listen closely: if “great art takes us to a place that is between Earth and Utopia, between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’”, as Adam Harper asserts in his monograph on John Maus, then Holter surely is a great artist. But the most amazing thing about her utterly complex and sophisticated work is that no matter how much profundity she puts into it, the result invariably is pop music that sounds effortless and almost weightless. Ekstasis will be out March 8th.
Finally, RVNG Intl will continue its terrific FRKWYS series which pairs contemporary artists and their progenitors by way of remix, reinterpretation, and original collaboration. The ninth instalment has brought together our beloved Cameron Stallone aka Sun Araw and his mate M. Geddes Gengras with The Congos in the latter’s hometown in Jamaica. The psych and dub-heavy result Icon Give Thank won’t be out before April 9th, but I thought the thrill of anticipation wouldn’t hurt, so here’s “Happy Song”:
Enough with RVNG Intl. for now and back to those labels whose output is the default material for this column. Sometime next month, Not Not Fun is going to drop the second full-length by Indiana’s finest synth-wizard Dylan Ettinger, Lifetime of Romance. This highly anticipated LP is however not New Age Outlaws Pt. 2, which might be a disappointment for those who’ve been waiting for more thrilling stories about the NYC ex-police officer Gordon. On the other hand, it’s also not 2009/2010 anymore, and the hypnagogic diction has lost its original momentum, so from an artistic standpoint it almost feels inevitable to move on, or rather move back to actual songwriting, as Ettinger recently told Tiny Mix Tapes. Lifetime of Romance now marks a creative turn towards heavy and mind-blowing classic synth-pop, something the exponents of early eighties cold wave would have been proud of to accomplish. Ettinger’s voice is mostly slightly distorted and rather distant in the mix, giving way to lush, exuberant excursions with his synthesizer of choice, the Moog Rogue, and highly propulsive rhythms, as perfectly exemplified by the first single “Wintermute”. The record’s true standout track however clearly is “Maude”, an eight-minute, crystal-clear wave banger that in a way blends the artist’s more song-based concept with the otherworldly, soundtrack-informed synth meanderings of New Age Outlaws, all put on a whole new level with the help of the stunning, eerie saxophone work by a friend. A highly recommended record and a huge creative leap for Dylan Ettinger.
There are also exciting things happening over at Software Recordings, the Mexican Summer subdivision that we’d already dealt with briefly the other day. Brooklyn’s Bill Gillim used to be better known as one half of synth pop duo Tigercity, together with Joel Ford (now one half of Ford & Lopatin). Now I don’t know what has happened with Tigercity, but it honestly doesn’t matter anymore since I’ve come across some of Gillim’s latest solo material under his Megafortress guise. His forthcoming self-titled LP on Software is pure bliss, a slow and mesmerizing listen that almost entirely relies on the artist’s masterful vocalization, a fragile falsetto in countless layers that is only sparsely supported by restrained, gloomy instrumentation. The truly astonishing record will be out January 31st.
I guess 2011 must have been a good year for underground pop music, not least due to the fact that this was the year, and I think for the first time at least since I’ve started dealing with this stuff, that the music community finally had found something to actually talk about. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there’s not usually a good deal of blathering and chattering about all kinds of things peripherally related to music, but usually it’s not really about popular music itself. This year though, the music community, or at least the more reflective part of it, suddenly revolved mainly around itself after Simon Reynolds had published his book Retromania, postulating on some 500 pages that contemporary popular music is facing total creative stagnation in consequence of collectively being trapped in backward-leaning nostalgia. The impact of the rather simple thesis was astonishing, virtually everyone felt the need to respond – mostly in defence of the current scene. There were some rather fierce reactions, like Not Not Fun’s Amanda Brown bluntly stating that “the Simon Reynolds perspective is the least modern attitude one could have toward art”, and some more subtle, witty ones. But be it as it may, at least there was something to talk about, an opportunity to pause and to deliberate, and well, that’s a good thing, innit?
For me, one piece stood out of the bulk of Retromania-related articles though, Adam Harper’s essay “Borne Into The 90s” on Dummy, in which he thoroughly discussed the creative possibilities of the latest incursion of nostalgia into pop, the inevitable 90s revival. And indeed, many things in this year’s underground pop that obviously had that decade as their most obvious reference point were way too clever and sophisticated to be considered merely “retromaniac”. Take London via Tallinn artist Maria Minerva for instance, who had a stream of exciting releases in the last twelve months on Not Not Fun and its dance offspring 100% SILK. Everything in her music screams “EUROTRASH”, but it’s all so damn astutely constructed (or, rather, deconstructed) that there can be no doubt that this is a fresh, new, innovative thing.
Another project whose point of reference (albeit more subtly and even more ironically) in 90s mainstream pop culture is of course London duo Hype Williams, who also had a very prolific year, although I’m rather unsure if they still manage to live up to the expectations set by their first releases dropped in 2010. More precisely, the full-length One Nation on Hippos In Tanks is among the best releases of 2011, while the subsequent Kelly Price W8 Gain Vol. II EP on Hyperdub was rather disappointing to be honest, and I couldn’t help but sense a commencing creative exhaustion. Anyway, One Nation’s track “Businessline” is a true highlight of this year:
In any case, both members have embarked on very worthwhile solo endeavours, and what they’ve put out on their own this year not only shows a terrific amount of pop sensibility but also no sign of exhaustion whatsoever. Especially Inga Copeland’s untitled 12”, sold out within a few days, includes some of my favourite underground pop tunes of 2011.
The question posed by Reynolds in his book was of course basically, “How innovative do we have to be?”, and though this was supposed to challenge contemporary pop music in general, I guess it’s safe to say that the part of it that usually wouldn’t object to be labelled “experimental” naturally does care a lot more about these things. Now let’s be reminded that neglecting classic song writing structures and using some vintage analogue synths has never been either a sufficient or even necessary condition to be justifiably considered avant-garde – still, the most compelling response to Retromania was given by a guy who’d always been doing exactly that: James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual is so very 2011 that the claim that the current pop underground was lacking innovative forces seems almost absurd. Though of course we could discuss if a work like this should still be considered a piece of music in the strict sense of the term.
My absolute favourite of 2011 however was a rather unobtrusive cassette released by the tiny Californian label and artist collective Brunch Groupe. The self-titled tape by KWJAZ, the solo project by label founder Peter Berends, is just perfect in its pure, effortless hypnagogic bliss and has remained on heavy rotation all year long. After being sold out on cassette, the piece was reissued on 12” vinyl by Not Not Fun, and by the way, Reynolds and I apparently agree on this one– and so the circle is complete.
Everybody keeps talking about Maria Minerva these days, and of course there’s a reason for that. 2011 has clearly been her year, especially after her latest 12” Sacred & Profane Love, which is out now on Amanda Brown’s 100% SILK. It’s arguably her best work to date, though for me her music remains “beyond beats”, insofar as no matter how many flickering grooves Maria puts on, I still don’t see myself actually dancing to this:
Stream: Maria Minerva – Gloria:
Anyway, I wanted to talk about another artist, who’s been tirelessly prolific lately. I think, it was early this year when Emmanuel Ducret, author of the sadly defunct/sleeping blogs Delicious Scopitone and Grrrizzly, predicted that 2011 would become the year of Ela Orleans. And really, he was right, or rather he should have been, as her work continues to be criminally overlooked and underappreciated. Her new album Mars Is Heaven is a wonderful piece of disparate, sublime chamber pop, an LP, I can’t recommend enough.
Maria and Ela actually have quite a few things in common, though I’m aware that one should be careful with comparisons and generalizations here, as EB’s own Daniel Jones has rightly pointed out last week. Still, I didn’t want to point to a common ground as regards instrumentation – or the choice of musical styles more generally for that matter. Yet I think, it’s worthwhile to take a brief look at the similarities regarding their biographies, not only both being UK transplants, but also having been brought up behind the Iron Curtain, in Estonia and Poland, respectively. This fact at least may explain the unashamed enthusiasm towards the forbidden or at least untraceable Western music, that was en vogue during their childhoods, and that today heavily informs their own musical output – be it early rave/Eurotrash for Maria or punk/post punk for Ela. So it’s probably no surprise, that on Mars Is Heaven, Ela has paid tribute to Brygada Kryzys by covering their song ‘Take My Hand’, as it was one of the few Polish bands that even during the 80s “played and sang as well as my favorite western bands”, as she’s told me recently .
Video: Ela Orleans – Take My Hand:
Apart from this rather pop-embracing stuff, November has brought quite a few excellent releases in the more experimental realm as well. In particular the French psychedelic scene has gotten very exciting as of late, a fact, that has recently compelled French imprints Hands In The Dark and Ruralfaune to issue a roundup of some of the most interesting local psych acts. Travel Expop Series #1: France features contributions from Holy Strays, Cankun, Voodoo Mount Sister, and Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier, and serves as a commendable introduction to French experimental pop.
As for the latter, Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier aka Félicia Atkinson has also just put out an LP via Belgian label Aguirre. L’Enfant Sauvage is made up of slow-burning, massive layers of synth washes and noise loops that are only sparsely supported by any kind of rhythm, with a result that’s both eerie and deeply entrancing. At times the music is faintly reminiscent of Grouper’s introspective drone, in particular on ‘Love’, which you can listen to below.
Stream: Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier – Love (excerpt):
Probably the most well-known exponent of the French scene is the Parisian Max aka High Wolf, whose Not Not Fun release Ascension put him on everyone’s radar last year. Despite also being featured on Travel Expop with Voodoo Mount Sister, one of his numerous other projects (this one’s with the “French psych diva” Chicaloyoh), there’s a new High Wolf LP out on Holy Mountain. “Atlas Nation” could be called his excursion into world music tropes, as the album was inspired by a trip to India and Nepal, and some of the tracks get mystified by way of giving them exotic names like “Fuji Descent”, “Haiti”, and “Kenya Sunset”, that curiously all have nothing to do with either India or Nepal. In any case, the global influences show throughout the record and, though I’ve recently been told, that “Atlas Nation” does not at all represent High Wolf’s current artistic interests due to an unexpectedly long delay in releasing the LP, it is a powerful reminder of why Max is the undisputed master in the contemporary French underground.
Stream: High Wolf – Kenya Sunset
In particular after dropping Ascension via NNF, Max’s output has been likened to the work of LA psych god Cameron Stallones aka Sun Araw, indeed with some justification (they’ve even collaborated recently. Now while Stallones has embarked to explore antique myths on his latest full-length Ancient Romans, long-standing Sun Araw touring guitarist Alex Gray has progressed to further develop his very own style of guitar-based psychedelia with his solo project Deep Magic. Not so much travelling on the hypnagogic bandwagon, Gray’s latest effort is a masterpiece of immersion. The six untitled séances on Altars of Veneration, out now on Moon Glyph, let your mind travel along his gentle, heavily processed chord progressions, building up colourful soundscapes that’ll leave you all calm and pacified.
Stream: Deep Magic – Untitled II:
Apart from his own musical projects, Alex Gray also runs Deep Tapes, and coming to an end I’d like to briefly point to the cassette imprint’s latest release: Yod is the first work by Gross Bite, which is the trans-continental collaboration between Boulder, Colorado’s Nathan Wheeler and – quite elegantly bringing us back to France – Paris-based project kikiilimikilii. The tape is a rather demanding affair, noise and drone-heavy and focused on the percussive possibilities of seemingly all kinds of analogue devices, but above all it’s also a deeply satisfying work as it manages to provide a surprisingly coherent and tight effort.
Stream: Gross Bite – Ruby
This past month, more or less everyone kept talking about Daniel Lopatin and his forthcoming Oneohtrix Point Never LP Replica on Mexican Summer’s sub-label Software, which is run by himself and Joel Ford. However, I’d rather point to Airbird here, which is the solo project of Ford, who of course is not only the second founder of Software but also the other half of, you may have guessed it, the more synth pop-oriented duo Ford & Lopatin.
Airbird’s debut 12” City Vs. Mountains has just been released by Software, and it’s the single’s B-side, “Rotating Cloud”, that I think is of particular interest. It starts as straight ambient mainly consisting of slowly meandering synth patterns, yet halfway through the track surprisingly adopts not only a very straightforward beat but also some very decent layers of (supposedly sampled) saxophone, giving the whole thing a very clubby touch that almost puts it in line with the recent “hipster house” surge mainly championed by the Not Not Fun offspring 100% SILK.
Another highly prolific duo, though apparently now more or less defunct or on infinite hiatus, are The Skaters, long-standing legends of the LA noise underground, consisting of James Ferraro and Spencer Clark, who both have pretty much defined the genre of 80s mainstream culture-informed, muffled outsider pop for years.
Being signed to Hippos In Tanks now, in a way it seems that James Ferraro is becoming another underground artist following the path paved by Ariel Pink, recently John Maus, and soon Gary War, out of the murky shades of a sheer endless stream of cassette and CDr releases traded among a relentlessly hip yet small circle of insiders, into the glaring spotlights of indie superstardom. There’s a considerable difference of course, as Ferraro’s work is still, as it always has been, way less accessible than, say, Pink’s, and “Far Side Virtual” is no exception despite its inexorably polished, shiny surface.
Musically, being mainly assembled with default sounds found on Ferraro’s newly purchased MacBook Pro, and with track titles such as “Google Poeises”, the record is so very 2011 that it almost hurts. You might call it a massive piece of contemporary art, in a way bearing more resemblance to a sound installation than to an actual album. Seriously, this should probably be put in some museum, so when in 200 years people start wondering (for whatever reason) what the civilized world sounded like at beginning of the third millennium, all one needed to do would be to point to “Far Side Virtual”: Here it is, just listen.
James Ferraro – Earth Minutes
Meanwhile, his old partner in crime Spencer Clark has been busy himself, setting up another new project (apart from The Skaters, he’s been releasing as Monopoly Star Child Searchers and a bunch of other monikers) named Fourth World Magazine. He stays way closer to old Skaters stuff than Ferraro, so in case you miss that I suggest you go get The Spectacle Of Light Abductions via Pacific Sound Visions right away, it’s pretty awesome.
Fourth World Magazine – The Spectacle Of Light Abductions (Track 3 Excerpt)
Let’s dwell in hypnagogic pop realms just a little longer: Our beloved Joe Knight aka Rangers has recently dropped his second full-length Pan Am Stories on Not Not Fun, and this LP really is, no hyperbole, one of the finest releases of 2011. The record is a beautiful and nicely coherent effort, sonically somewhere between ’70s soft rock inspirations and swirling psychedelia. Knight has managed to create an incredibly compelling trip into your subconscious, like a faintly remembered daydream of those hazy late summer days just before the fall sets in.
Rangers – John Is The Last Of A Dying Breed
Another artist who’s adopted the melancholic fall mode is LA resident Nicolas Ray, otherwise known as Speculator – to my surprise, that even appears to happen to folks living in Southern California. Anyway, Ray has just put out new material as Cool Angels, though it’s not really all that different from his latest Speculator stuff – way dreamier, more longing, and maybe more song-oriented, sure, so that you could almost call it shoegaze, but apart from that it’s all still hidden behind a thick fog of tape hiss and reverb, just like the Speculator we’ve come to love. The release – Demure, out now digitally and soon on cassette via Gnar Tapes – has pretty much blown me away this morning, in particular the wonderful collaborations with Stef Hodapp of Young Prisms and Christa Palazzolo of Boyfriend. Take a listen to the beautiful “Are U Real” below.
Cool Angels – Are U Real (feat. Stef Hodapp)